Home Sweet Yemen: Probably Safer Than Where You Live Story and Photos by David Rich
A popular traveler’s guide to The Arabian Peninsula describes Yemen as “safer than where you come from” and perhaps it is, because Yemen has had none of its formerly famous kidnappings since September 11, 2001. When terrorism swept the world, it apparently left Yemen.
Now European and Japanese tourists are flocking to ancient Arabia Felix, Yemen’s name in antiquity when Solomon and the Queen of Sheba ruled the world and Yemen’s incredible desert palaces and hilltop towns began sprouting like topsy.
Yemen is eye candy where tourists snap photos with abandon. Start in the capitol of Sana’a, its Old City with gingerbread-like condos liberally sprinkled with fancy white frosting in intricate patterns. On the edge of Sana’a sits an ancient castle stacked high on a skyscraper red rock, the most popularized symbol of Yemen seen on posters and in magazines.
Don’t miss the old Turkish fortresses built high on mountains such as over Thula, or tiny-mesa topped Kawkaban, a miniature town propped high above Shibom with primordial cave homes. Al Hajjarah is a perfect postcard town while Old Ibb spreads over a precipitously craggy mountain.
See the stunning mosques of Jiblah, the view from high on the mountain over Ta’izz or the white powder beaches of the Red Sea. Yemen is tourist excitement central.
Another exciting thing about Yemen is at first it doesn’t look so safe. My initial impression was everyone wearing a wicked looking dagger, either pea green or yellow, a big monstrosity stuck in a golden belt worn over white djallabahs under turban tablecloths seemingly pinched from Italian restaurants.
After the initial shock of a populace armed to the teeth wore off, I realized the daggers were all ceremonial. During my weeks in Yemen I only saw daggers unsheathed twice: the first time at the traditional Yemen dance exhibition where the guys sashay arm in arm while brandishing their daggers like candles. These pussycats, from schoolboys and merchants to military and cops, habitually stroll down the boulevard holding hands.
The second time I saw daggers unsheathed was when the driver of an eighteen-wheeler cut another one off and they zoomed down the highway waving daggers at each other while fiercely scowling over bristly mustaches; far more comical than the.347 magnums wielded in road rage where I come from.
Eastern Yemen takes a little more getting used to. There you learn the lessons of the desert. The first is to always give a man a ride who’s hitchhiking with a Kalishnikov. But then the residents of eastern Yemen all tote Kalishnikovs, trusty Russian machine guns that make a de rigeur fashion statement on the road to Mareb.
The wild wild east looks like a lawless part of Yemen but is also a land of pussycats. Not a single shot was fired during my journey to the east and many of those carrying Kalishnikovs looked suspiciously like a mustachoed Woody Allen in a slightly soiled lavender dress, hardly formidable. However, I also learned the second rule of the desert. Always ask first before taking a photo of a guy with a Kalishnikov. Whew. Heart be still.
Security is tight in Yemen with military roadblocks outside many towns and at one point near Mareb, three in three miles. My strategy for safety was telling everyone I was from Canada, sweet safe Canada that’s never invaded another country in its entire history.
We’d roll up to a roadblock with my driver shouting, “Kennedy, kennedy,” as he handed over a copy of my tourist travel authorization. I’d do a double-take, thinking my cover was being compromised by reference to last Century’s U.S. President. Arabic accented English (Canada = Kennedy?) takes getting used to.
More dangerous than the ever-present military with their Kalishnikovs and a populace with daggers is Yemeni multi-tasking. I’d cower in the back seat of the Land Cruiser-for-hire while my driver passed on blind curves above sheer cliffs, dipped into his plastic bag to chew narcotic Qat (pronounced ‘kot‘), puffed on a cigarette and chatted on a cell phone, simultaneously as we were serenaded by an Arabic ‘music’ tape on full blast. I learned to prefer Kalishnikovs and daggers.
My driver carefully explained that multi-tasking is no big deal. “Qat makes me strong,” he said.
Qat is the drug of choice for all Yemeni males, from cops directing traffic and the military at checkpoints to every man on the street and likely the imams in mosques. Qat leaves look like shrunken basil leaves and are sold literally everywhere, in bundles or still fresh on branch, in every town on every block.
Starting about noon everyone’s in the market for buying, inspecting, sampling and literally stuffing their faces with Qat leaves for hours until the wad in the cheek is the size of a softball or grapefruit, pouched out like four-inch mumps.
So I had to try Qat. After the first time I said never again. But I finally tried it twice because it‘s the principal hobby of Yemen’s entire population. Qat is nasty stuff like chewing hay. It takes hours of pinching leaves off stems, stuffing them in the mouth, chomping them to soup while desperately trying to form a wad of green goopy flourescent mash that sticks to the inside of cheeks, lips and gums while oozing out the mouth in an unseemly grasshopper-like drool. Qat didn’t do a thing for me unless you count exasperation.
Then I ran into a fellow ex-pat who was in the middle of a considerable Qat cudd and asked him, “What’s the point? It doesn’t seem to do anything for me.”
He said, “You have to chew it six or seven times to get anything out of it.”
I just looked at him because that adds up to eighteen or twenty hours of chomping hay. I said, “That’s an awful lot of work,” but he was too busy chewing away, happily flashing a sloppy green grin.
I never saw women chewing Qat, but then except for European tourists I never saw women during weeks in Yemen. I did see coteries of penguins floating down the street, big penguins covered from tip to toenail in flowing black dresses that someone said were actually women. You couldn’t prove it by me. Penguins go Qat-less but do exude their own mysterious spice.
Home sweet Yemen. Safer than staying home. After the sixth or seventh attempt to chew an entire Qat tree you may never want to leave.
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